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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

IV: The Mixed Medical Commission

IV: The Mixed Medical Commission

A Mixed Medical Commission, sometimes called the repatriation commission, visited prisoner-of-war camps regularly for the purpose of deciding who among the sick and wounded should be repatriated. The Commission was set up by international agreement and worked through a number of teams. The composition of each team was usually two neutral doctors (Swiss) plus a doctor from the detaining power, i.e., a German when the team was touring Germany page 141 and a British doctor when the team was touring Canada. All these doctors were top grade, usually of professorial status, and they were very impartial and fair, though often with a slight bias in favour of prisoners of war.

The criteria for repatriation were the improbability of the prisoner of war again serving his country and the inability of the detaining power to provide the requisite treatment. The cases presented for consideration fell into several categories: (a) Obvious – the limbless, the blind, those with tuberculosis cavities; (b) Less obvious, which were subjected before presentation to much investigation by British and German medical officers, e.g., those with peptic ulcers; (c) Doubtful – those insisted upon by British medical officers without agreement by the Germans: the doubtful lung shadow, the suspected early disseminated sclerosis, etc.; and (d) those who neither the British nor the German medical officers believed should be presented, but who were allowed to present themselves. They rarely succeeded without medical advocacy. Among cases presented from prisoner-of-war hospitals as high a pass rate as 95 per cent was not uncommon. Naturally among the more ambulant more difficult decisions had to be made, and a correspondingly smaller percentage passed. Being passed for repatriation did not always mean early action, and there were sometimes considerable delays before the prisoners of war concerned were actually repatriated.

Following the first visit of the repatriation commission to German camps in 1941, many prisoners of war and some orderlies and officers (including New Zealanders) were taken to Rouen for exchange. The exchange did not take place and all were back in Germany by February 1942, and it was not until 3 November 1943 that the first New Zealand group of invalids to be repatriated from Germany reached Cairo via Spain.

In central prisoner-of-war hospital areas, e.g., Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf, no medical work loomed as large in the eyes of the German Chefarzt as the preparation of patients for presentation to the Mixed Medical Commission. The Commission met twice a year, in May and November; and, except for a lull of two months following its visit, a tremendous amount of effort was centred around it.

The routine became as follows. A patient with a lesion which looked of repatriable class would be shown to the Chefarzt during his weekly visit. Special tests would be devised, including examinations by German specialists, and the Chefarzt would be convinced of the nature of the ailment. When the time for the commission drew nigh, the man's name would be added to the list and complete summaries of the case prepared; and on the ‘glorious day’ the patient would be presented to the commission. A clinical discussion might be held on each case, at which the British specialists would page 142 give their views, if at variance with the Germans, and the man passed or rejected.

It must be recorded that only in late 1944 would Germans accept the findings of British specialists, radiologists or laboratories. Prior to that, any man with a renal complaint, a duodenal ulcer, a tuberculous spine, etc., had to be examined by equivalent German specialists, radiologists or laboratories. The amount of additional headache thus caused, including transport of patients to and from these clinics, e.g., 20 kilometres to Oppeln or Neisse, or 60 kilometres to Breslau in Wehrkreis VIII alone, and the heartache caused by tests and reports not being completed in time can well be imagined.

Small wonder that, with a steady annual increase in numbers being presented, the Germans, overwhelmed with the care of their own sick, came more and more to rely on British clinical and laboratory findings.